Publisher John H. Johnson and the 1964 Civil Rights Act

The civil rights movement received a major victory in the fight for equality with the passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.

Initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the bill was designed to outlaw racial discrimination and segregation in public places. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law in 1964, ensuring legal protection against voting registration and employment inequality for African Americans and women.

(The stamp above, which features a detail from “Dixie Café” by Jacob Lawrence, was issued in 2005 as part of the To More A More Perfect Union stamp pane.)

As the trailblazing publisher of Ebony, Jet, and other magazines aimed primarily at an African-American audience, John H. Johnson, whose stamp was issued earlier this year, was uniquely situated to comment on and influence prevailing American culture.  Ebony in particular played an important role in the civil rights movement, by providing important coverage of protest marches and other events. Even during tension-filled times in the Deep South, photographers from Ebony—white or black, depending on the circumstances—were on the scene to capture the news.

It’s no surprise, then, that the President sought out Johnson in early 1964, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. What was the President after? In short, support from the black media for his efforts against racial discrimination. “As soon as I crossed the threshold, the president started talking,” wrote Johnson, “telling me what he had done and was doing for Black people and that he didn’t see why Jet was always criticizing his administration and picking at this and that.”

Johnson promised the President would receive only fair coverage in his magazines.

After that first meeting, the President began to meet regularly with Johnson and other African-American publishers. In fact, Johnson and the President became friends. “I was invited to the White House so many times,” he later wrote, “I was embarrassed to tell my friends.”

Johnson says little about the Civil Rights Act in his 1989 autobiography, Succeeding Against the Odds. But the impact of his publications on the civil rights movement in the 1960s and vice versa, before and after its passage, is clear. “I must have been doing something right,” he stated with modesty, “for my leading magazines reached all-time highs in the sixties, and we received unprecedented acclaim in the Black and White communities. When we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Ebony in November 1965, Ebony was selling 900,000 copies a month, and its three sister magazines, Jet, Tan, and Negro Digest, were selling a total of 2.3 million copies a month.”


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